LONDON — She was the legal brain who become one of the Scottish National Party’s most prominent figures with her fight against Brexit, but Joanna Cherry’s summary sacking this week laid bare its bitter internal divisions.
Cherry was dumped as a justice spokesperson from the party’s frontbench team in Westminster on Monday, amid bitter fights about former leader Alex Salmond, transgender rights and the roadmap for Scottish independence.
Critics argue Cherry’s combative approach burned too many bridges with colleagues. But her supporters say it reveals a dangerous centralization of power around the SNP’s leader, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. It’s a style seen as particularly risky because a looming investigation into Sturgeon’s handling of complaints against her predecessor Salmond could pose a serious threat to her leadership — and deal a significant blow to the separatist cause.
Cherry has allied herself closely to Salmond and against Sturgeon’s leadership on key policies. But personalities matter as much as the substance in politics, and separating the two in the bitter SNP feud is tough.
The SNP approaches politics with a “central, one-leadership view of the world” and prefers “not to truck any kind of discussion at all,” said one Cherry ally. “That’s why some of these things have broken in public.”
Cherry’s backers say her talent and ideas have been ignored, as Sturgeon seeks to keep an iron grip on the party. Her dismissal, in their eyes, was about crushing dissent. The ally described it as a case of “tall poppy syndrome,” with the leadership hoping to kill off critics ahead of a rollercoaster few weeks, which could be make or break for Sturgeon. Others in the pro-Sturgeon camp argue Cherry was too disloyal to be kept on the frontbench.
MPs POLITICO spoke to from across political divides praised Cherry’s sharp legal mind and political nous. She was instrumental in two high profile court cases against the Westminster government over Brexit: one that forced ministers to ask parliament before triggering the Brexit countdown; and another that ruled the Conservative administration had acted unlawfully in suspending parliament.
“My experience of working with her was that she was completely professional, cooperated with other political parties in resisting no deal [on Brexit] and was always interesting to listen to on a personal basis,” said former Conservative minister Dominic Grieve, who teamed up with Cherry during the Brexit battles of the previous parliament. “She is a strong personality, but she listens to other people.”
While the SNP is a center left party, Cherry won respect from others on the Conservative benches for her approach to the theater of the House of Commons. “One of her specialties is needling Conservative MPs,” said one senior Tory.
A legal colleague who has known her for decades said: “If you found that she was your opponent you knew that she would pull no punches but equally be completely reasonable, and you would normally be able to come up with some sort of deal that was satisfactory to all parties.”
“She’s very assertive woman who knows exactly what she wants and isn’t scared of speaking out about her views,” added one SNP official.
But her enemies in the party are less forgiving: describing her as unbearable to work with, and willing to sabotage the project of Scottish independence if it means winning internal battles and promoting herself. One SNP official said she was demanding of colleagues and always wanting to get her own way. In 2019 she was cleared of a bullying complaint lodged by staff with a parliamentary watchdog.
Some political opponents are scathing. “She’s probably the most unpleasant person in parliament or all parties for me,” said a frontbencher in the opposition Labour party. Her friends insist she is no narcissist and keeps the ultimate prize of Scottish independence in mind in all her dealings.
Yet even her supporters admit the Edinburgh South West MP can be difficult to deal with. “She can be prickly at times, but there’s no-one without personal flaws,” said one ally. Asked whether they had been on the end of those prickles, the person said: “Definitely. Everybody has,” but insisted Cherry’s heart was in the right place.
Cherry declined to answer questions for this article.
The drama of this week comes as Sturgeon is on the ropes over her handling of sexual abuse allegations against her predecessor, and former mentor, Salmond. He was cleared in the courts last year over multiple charges of assault, but the fallout has caused much party infighting.
The first minster has faced questions over when she knew of the allegations, as well as claims she misled the Scottish Parliament in written evidence she gave, something which would amount to a breach of Scotland’s ministerial code — and could be grounds for resignation.
Salmond appears before a Holyrood inquiry into the issue next week, and has promised to present damning new evidence against the first minister. Sturgeon will appear the following week.
Cherry is a friend of Salmond — although her allies insist she does not like being described as a Salmondite or a Sturgeonite and is an SNP member first and foremost. SNP officials accuse her of making life difficult for the leadership by agitating for the former leader.
The Labour frontbencher quoted above said: “There is an almighty battle that has been raging for a number of years about whether you back Salmond or Sturgeon. This is coming to a head with the claims and counterclaims coming from the Scottish parliamentary inquiry.”
Then there is the issue of trans rights. Cherry has spoken out against Scottish government plans to strengthen rights and protections for trans people, arguing they erode rights for women.
Last month she clashed on Twitter with the SNP’s former Westminster deputy leader Kirsty Blackman, referring to her as a “privileged young straight woman” (Cherry describes herself as a “lesbian feminist”) and accusing Blackman of breaking the party’s code of conduct in her own comments attacking Cherry.
Blackman told POLITICO: “The party has committed to recognizing a definition of transphobia and I believe that individuals who are transphobic should face ejection from the party,” although she refused to be drawn directly on Cherry.
“Parties have to have discipline,” said another SNP MP who thinks Cherry is on the wrong side of the trans debate. “The SNP gives elected representatives a lot of leeway. But there have to be some limits.” Cherry has attracted online abuse for her trans rights stance, and is said to feel abandoned by Sturgeon, who allies argue never came to her defense.
Route to a new nation
Another big fight — and one that is core to the party — is over the route to winning Scottish independence. Cherry has been a vocal advocate of pushing to hold an independence referendum, regardless of whether or not Boris Johnson’s Westminster government grants permission — something it is currently refusing to do. She argues its legality can be tested in the courts. Sturgeon, on the other hand, has long argued the more cautious path of waiting until Westminster gives another vote its blessing, to ensure a referendum is legally watertight.
Allies of Cherry feel she won out in the debate, after the SNP published its roadmap to independence, and suggested it could push ahead even without Westminster’s approval. But in a sign of her estrangement from the leadership in Edinburgh, Cherry was not consulted in drawing up the plan.
Cherry has come close to an SNP leadership position in the past. In the 2017 election for the party’s Westminster leader, she was within a couple of votes of beating her rival Ian Blackford. Colleagues think Cherry would be unlikely to win the same support again, such is the bad blood now. Just two MPs rode to her defense in public after she was sacked: Angus MacNeil and Kenny MacAskill — the only other two who were denied frontbench roles in the reshuffle in which Cherry was ejected.
But the Tory MP quoted earlier accused Cherry of “conceit” — pointing out that few sacked from a frontbench role would tweet about their “hard work, results and a strong reputation,” as Cherry did, and then call on their party to rethink its approach.
With attention turning to the drama in Edinburgh next week, and whether Sturgeon could be brought down by the Salmond scandal, Cherry’s allies are touting her as a possible successor, the standard-bearer for the anti-Sturgeon faction. “Someone will emerge as leader if Nicola is taken down,” said the friend who described her as “prickly” above. “And she’s almost anointed Jo Cherry.”
Alasdair Lane contributed reporting.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by WCT staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)